“You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a Winters night a Traveller. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, “No I don’t want to watch TV!” Raise your voice – they won’t hear you otherwise –“I’m Reading!”
These are the first few lines of the novel, and after settling down, finding your most comfortable position (making sure everything’s perfect), a couple of pages later you then go on to read, what I think is a perfect description of a reader & by reader I mean a Bookfiend, an obsessive devourer of the written word. This description starts with you finding out about this book (you know, the one you’re reading) and then going to a bookshop to purchase it.
“In the shop window you have promptly identified the cover with the title you were looking for. Following this visual trail, you have forced your way through the shop past the thick barricade of Books You Haven’t Read, which were frowning at you from the tables and shelves, trying to cow. But you know you must never allow yourself to be awed, that among them there extend for acres the Books You Needn’t Read, the Books Made For Purposes Other Than Reading, Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong To The Category Of Books Read Before Being Written. And thus you pass the outer girdle of the ramparts, but then you are attacked by the infantry of the books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered. With a rapid maneuver you bypass them and move into the phalanxes of Books You Mean To Read But There Are Others You Must Read First, the Books To Expensive Now And You’ll Wait To They’re Remaindered, the Books You Can Borrow From Somebody, Books That Everybody’s Read So It’s As If You Had Them, Too. Eluding these assaults, you come up beneath the towers of the fortress, where other troops are holding out:
The Books You’ve Been Planning To Read For Ages,
The Books You’ve Been Hunting For Years Without Success,
The Books Dealing With Something You’re Working On At The Moment,
The Books You Want To Own So They’ll Be Handy Just In Case,
The Books You Could Put Aside Maybe To Read This Summer,
The Books You Need To Go With Other Books On Your Shelves,
The Books That Fill You With Sudden, Inexplicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified.”
You’ve now bought the book, found your way home, settled down, possibly with a nice drink, perhaps a coffee or maybe something stronger -say, a nice glass of malt whisky. You turn the first page - which starts at some railway station (don’t know where, or when),- the feeling is like it’s some 1940’s film Noir, your reading voice is being acted by William Holden and you realise it’s just a matter of time before some femme fatale crosses your path.
Now you’re relaxed, you’re about 30 pages in, you’ve crossed that invisible border, you understand this book, so you turn the page……and you realise there’s a problem a mistake, you’ve read this before, in fact the whole book is misprinted and contains only more copies of that same chapter.
You return it to the shop, are given a replacement, but this turns out to be a totally different novel altogether. Just as you becomes engrossed in that, it too is broken off: the pages, which were uncut, turn out to have been largely blank. This happens again. This cycle of first chapter, problem, new book - different book etc..
Whilst at the book-shop you meet a girl you fancy, who has the same book as you, playing it cool you arrange to meet her again to discuss any problems with this latest version, this starts another tale - one that alternates with the chapters from the various unfinished novels - in which you chase the novel around the globe, meeting various characters, are arrested & a lot more.
All through this post I’ve referred to the main protagonist as “You” Because This book is about a reader trying to read a book called If on a winter's night a traveller, and that’s you. Italo Calvino, has posited you THE READER in the driving seat, it’s you that finds the faults, you who track down the various books, the publisher, writer, translator etc.
By now there comes the understanding , we are not reading just any ordinary novel. We are instructed to get comfortable, avoid distractions and enjoy the process that is reading. Slowly it dawns that this book puts pre-eminence on the reading experience itself, rather than on the text, this book takes you through a detective tale, a romance, a satire, an erotic story and still isn’t finished with you, this is the sheer genius of this book and Calvino’s writing, he has placed you, the reader as the hero.
Although this book is one of those books labelled postmodernmetafictionSelf-reflexive novel, and reviews about it spout sentences such as - “which explores if absolute objectivity is possible, or even agreeable. Other themes include the subjectivity of meaning (associated with post-structuralism) the relationship between fiction and life, what makes an ideal reader and author, and authorial originality.” - None of that matters, I loved this book, it made me turn the page, it made me laugh out loud sometimes with the sheer cheek/ audacity of the writer, one minute I’m Mickey Spillane, the next Jorge Luis Borges, and sometimes I laughed, just because it was funny.
When If on a Winter's Night a Traveller was first published in the late 70’s it was considered cutting edge and revolutionary. This shamefully tends to translate as unpopular within mass culture who are put off by the terminology used. Thirty years or so later & Calvino's work is still being analysed and studied by universities all across the world who are seeking to introduce and enlighten today's generation to the excitement and unpredictability that exists in a Postmodern world.
Some Literary Conceits.